Sunday, July 23, 2017

Refugee experience


What is it like to pack for a destination unknown? To leave a war torn home, unsure if you’ll ever return? These are the questions faced by the protagonist in Marina Antropow Cramer’s novel Roads. The author read excerpts from her novel and answered questions at the Fullerton Center for Culture & History in Newburgh on Saturday June 24. 

Set in Yalta and Germany during the World War II, the story follows Filip, a young Russian man whose life is put on hold by the war. Filip dreams of going to university to make his mark in the world as an architect, but is stopped by the war which robs him of the some of the most formative years of his life and now he and his family can only try to stay alive.


Antropow Cramer talked about the political climate of the region during Nazi descent into Filip’s homeland and how families had few options. An excerpt illustrated the family considering what to take when they realized abandoning home was imminent. They questioned what would happen to the items they left behind. Even if refugees were given the chance to return home they found it much different than before they left.  

The author talked about how most books explore a question or seek to help people better understand something. Her book’s theme centers around the plight of refugees. Antropow Cramer came was born in Germany into a family of refugees from the Soviet Union

She had heard stories and as she would explain her ancestry, realized she didn’t know the material well. ”When you don’t know much, it shows when you try to explain it to someone else,” she said.


The book is not about her family, but is set around the experience shared by her ancestors. Armed with the knowledge that stories can be nostalgic and romanticized when passed down through the oral tradition, she first made sure the historical framework of dates and events was accurate. Antropow Cramer visited the area, but not Yalta itself, and she encouraged us to question if that fact is an advantage or not. Would actually being there help the author tell the story? The Yalta of today is much different than the Yalta of the 1940s.

The title “Roads” stems from a 1945 song dealing with war, brotherhood, and losing and leaving people. Song, food and stories are a common thread of the refugee tapestry. Does the story have a happy ending? The author says that’s a matter of interpretation.

Marina Antropow Cramer: www.marinaantropowcramer.com

Fullerton Center for Culture & History: www.fullertonculturalcenter.wordpress.com

Monday, June 26, 2017

Omelas & suffering


There’s one piece of literature from middle school (or high school, I don’t remember) that stays with me. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a 1973 short story by Ursula Le Guin, a descriptive tale with no timeline. A joyous festival takes place in a Utopian paradise: horses with braided manes being readied for a race by children with mud-stained feet, dancing in the street, music, grand parks and moss-grown gardens, a child playing a wooden flute. There exists no king, no swords, no slaves, no clergy.  

The perfection of Omelas and the indulgences enjoyed by its residents is contingent upon a horrendous situation in the basement of one of its magnificent buildings. The situation is not a secret. Everyone is aware, and it is explained to children when they are about 8 or 12. Though all are shocked and sickened and wonder what they can do to help, they turn around and retreat to Omelas’ magnificent architecture and abundant harvests. 

But some react differently.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates."


We’ve all seen the hidden camera clips of chicks being stomped to death by the dozens at factory farms, or dogs suffering horrendous effects while subject to medical experiments. It’s suffering that most of us turn away from because it’s hard to think about, justifying our complicit support by reasoning that the ends justify the means.


My friend Susan and I recently did a volunteer day at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls. The sanctuary regularly rescues farmed animals from horrific circumstances and its residents represent a tiny sliver of the most exploited animals in the world.  The 150-acre site houses over 340 animals including chickens, cows, goats, sheep, and others. Volunteers can sign up in advance to help muck pens and clean enclosures, while visitors are welcome to tour the sanctuary as well. We spend our time shoveling the turkey barns, and then doing the same for the goats area. The center’s website has great resources about their history, animal exploitation, volunteer and visitor resources, and an online store.

The sanctuary advocates veganism as a path we can take to reduce suffering. It’s important to remember who suffers for our first world luxuries and making sure our choices align with our values is key to becoming a conscious consumer.


Woodstock Farm Sanctuary: www.woodstocksanctuary.org
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Stay in


Lately I’ve been thinking about sugar, particularly of the added variety. Donuts, cookies, sugary drink- so common, but just nutritionally void. When I was in middle school, every day for lunch I would eatc a lemon Snapple and a chipwich ice cream sandwich. Studies reveal again and again that sugar causes obesity, diabetes, etc—but we continue to eat something stuff that gives us nothing physically. The worst is when junk foods take the place of healthy choices, like the lunch I ate every day in school.

Last month my friend Susan and I stayed at Arbor Bed & Breakfast in High Falls. I know “charming” is an overused description, but it fits. I’m definitely a breakfast person and have been my whole life, so I was excited to see our host served cereal, and it was a sugar-free variety.


High Falls is a rural artsy village and the Arbor is a short walk from the village center. The B&B’s proprietor, Nancy, was familiar with guests, like us, who stay with her as part of volunteer service at the nearby Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. Nancy’s home is large and offers multiple spaces, each named a different color, for guests to choose from. Outside are a porch and garden, and indoors near the kitchen is a reading room filled with art books and info on local cultural interests and attractions. Nancy can accommodate small weddings and dinner parties.


For the breakfast Nancy prepared for us, she accommodated my friend Susan’s vegan diet. She can prepare for guests a bag lunch, especially welcome for farm sanctuary volunteers.

Though our stay at the Arbor was short, we left a charming reminder of what it feels like to have someone make you breakfast. 


Arbor Bed & Breakfast: www.arborbb.com

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Habitat changes


It’s a funny thing when a transformation renders a once-popular nickname irrelevant. Strolling past clean, well-maintained homes on a certain section of East Parmenter Street in Newburgh, you’d never guess that until a few years ago this area was dubbed “crack alley”.

Earlier this month I took a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tour with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, a free public event similar to an open house and bus tour of their projects within the city. The event began at Habitat’s main office on Washington Street with a video about the agency. Staff elaborated on Habitat’s mission, we heard testimonials from homeowner families who escaped housing issues like overcrowding and deterioration, and volunteers talked about what inspired them to start working with the organization.


Executive Director Kathy Collins demonstrated the impact of Habitat and the needs it meets. The organization has served 101 families since its founding and is about to dedicate its 88th house next month. In addition to also constructing shelters for families in other countries, most recently in Mexico and Haiti, the organization does minor exterior repairs for agencies that serve the community. Collins explained the family selection process from home visits to the final decision made by the board of directors. Staff talked about situations that face families such as severe overcrowding, children seeping in closets, poorly-functioning bathrooms, fuseboxes located in a separate apartment, and apartments entirely without electricity. One family had a heater that shot fire into the center of the living quarters. The cabinets in one family’s kitchen were covered in aluminum foil to shield them from leaks from an upstairs apartment. Other examples were a toilet that spun around. Why do families stay in these situations? Many either don’t know their rights or they fear eviction. The families who qualify for assistance are hardworking and employed, but don’t have the means to walk away from a bad situation.


Staff answered common frequently asked questions and dispelled myths about how families are chosen. Staff examine a family’s income, their work history, and their ability to partner with the agency by providing 250-500 hours of “sweat equity” in their own home, that of another, or at the ReStore shop. Families must take classes on budgeting, credit, home repair, and how to be a good neighbor. Habitat is funded through individual gifts, volunteers, and some government funding usually for the purpose of lead and asbestos abatement.

Next was a tour of some of the organization’s projects. We began by walking next door to 123 Washington Street to explore a live/work project which combines living and commercial space. This style targets entrepreneurs and this particular home belonged to a photographer and his family. The Collins explained that Whirlpool donates stoves and fridges to each project, and that the bamboo flooring we stood upon was allergen-free and more sustainable than hardwoods.  


We boarded a small bus for the mobile part of our tour. The use of bus itself was donated and driven by Frank, the CFO is local Leprechaun Lines. Heading down Ann Street we saw a 3-family building being stabilized alongside a grassy lot that was to remain as green space. Next up was a Veterans Build project on Clark Street, 3 gut rehabs in different stages on South Miller Street. Some of these projects were partnership with the Newburgh Community Land Bank and RUPCO and are part of a plan to stabilize the whole block. One home featured lumber from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. As we viewed projects, staff passed around photos of buildings with boarded windows and charred roofs, to show us how they looked before renovations. 


On our drive down Chambers Street we learned this block had no sidewalks at the start. Habitat doesn’t use vinyl siding on buildings, but prefers a hardy cementitious version. Next we crossed Broadway and turned onto East Parmenter, formerly known as “crack alley”, which featured projects completed by Americorps volunteers and Faith Build. Other building groups include Women Build, Episcopal Build, Gap Industries, Veterans Build, Health build with Saint Luke’s Hospital, and Education Build. Around the corner stood a building used as transitional housing for families in dire circumstances until their homes are ready.

This regularly scheduled tour is a great way to learn and ask questions about how the organization is reshaping the footprint of the City of Newburgh as they work to eradicate poverty, bring the American dream to more people, better the health and wellbeing of children, generate city revitalization and environmental restoration, develop community, and expand the tax base.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh: www.habitatnewburgh.org

Saturday, May 6, 2017

City farming


Free seedlings. Gourmet sorbet. Compost. Chickens. The Newburgh Urban Farming Fair had something for everyone. Held on Saturday, April 29 on Grand Street in Newburgh, this annual celebration of the city’s focus on agriculture brought together local farms, community organizations, vendors, donors and the arts to and promote food production and environmental conservation within the City of Newburgh.

The fair was part of Newburgh Last Saturdays, a monthly celebration of the arts, culture, and community in historic downtown Newburgh.


Attendees met chickens and goats, learned from Cornell Master Gardener’s “Ask a Gardener” service, experiment with composting and waste management, and meet gardeners from almost a dozen of Newburgh’s community gardens. Other activities included a bee demonstration as well as seed planting projects with local food educator Hudson Valley Seed and Michaels.

A highlight of the fair was a free performance of “Dirt; The Secret Life of Soil” by Arm-of-the-Sea Puppet and Mask Theater. The Malden-on-Hudson-based performance group combines art, ecology and social action to create works performed at cultural centers, festivals, community venues and schools around the U.S.


Food vendors included local granola, gourmet sorbet, sausage and cheese, and a baked goods. A farmers market offered vegetables, eggs, and info on CSAs.  

The Newburgh Urban Farming Fair’s mission is to “Nourish a healthy Newburgh through access to fresh food and urban gardening education.” The event is a collaboration of community organizations including Downing Park Urban Farm, NHS Center for Hope, and Hudson Valley Seed.

Newburgh Urban Farming Fair:  www.facebook.com/newburghurbanfarmingfair

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moral panic


Ostracizing people who don’t fit the public mold thing is nothing new. Though as a whole we get better and better about accepting our differences, history repeatedly reminds us that a slippery slope can make a panicking public turn exclusion into something totally horrendous.

At a recent gallery talk at Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, artist Alisa Read talked about the inspiration behind her current installation. Read’s Victim or Target series is part of the gallery’s Mythology exhibit and she drew her story from the infamous trials of the Pendle witches in England.

According to gallery materials Read is a “contemporary artist whose present work focuses on the dominance of male hierarchies in religious, political and social culture and its connection with the persecution and sacrifice of women in 17th century England.”


For Victim or Target Read scortched sheets of cotton cloth and draped them to form ghostly figures, representing eight of the executed women. Because no photograhs of the women were available, Read incorporated images of her own face into each piece.

The women were forced to walk 51 miles between Barrowford and Lancaster, England to reach the destination where they were tried, hung and burned at the gallows. As part of her project Read actually carried her figures along the same path, now known as the Lancashire Witches Walk, which was opened to the public in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the trials. Read gave gallery’s audience a look at the book she created as a symbol of the 91 days the women spent in prison as well.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, over 400 men and women were accused of witchcraft and executed in England. The group Read focused on lived in the rural cotton-manufacturing Pendle Hill region of Lancashire. What makes this particular trial unique is the thoroughness of documentation that exists thanks to proceedings recorded by clerk Thomas Potts.  


Cultural changes and religious superstitions contributed to the social climate that led to the executions. When King James I took the English throne in the early 1600s he brought with him an intense interest in Protestant theology. His book Daemonologie encouraged followers to denounce witchcraft and its followers.  In 1612 every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was instructed to report people who refused to attend the English Church and take communion, known as recusants. The King James Bible actually has passages encouraging violence against witches:
  • Exodus 22:18 - Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
  • Leviticus 20:27 - A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood [shall be] upon them.

Read talked about other factors that contributed to moral panic and persecution. Doctors, usually male, were not fond of witches' roles in the emergence of herbal medicine and midwifery in rural communities. Most victims were poor and mundane women who were simply trying to help their isolated communities, but were turned into scapegoats for what was wrong with society.

Americans are familiar with our own society’s role in the witch trials in Salem, Massachussets. In G. Adams book The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America she described the narrative as a “vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.”

Witches have been pardoned by government in Sweden and the U.S. but England still has not done so for the women who inspired Read’s project.  



Read is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Huddersfield and focuses on the religious persecution of women in 17th Century England. She explained to her audience her current research on Pagan altars and her upcoming trip to Salem Massachussets to study the region’s witch trials.

Read’s research brought her to meet practicing witches who she described as normal people, one about 35 years old and living as an average member of the community in a normal home with children. Read’s objective with Victim or Target is to give a face to the persecuted and she encouraged us to imagine witches outside of popular “Disneyfied” evil characters with black hats and broomsticks.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Power of the public plate


Did you know school lunch system was developed as a measure of national security? The standards were signed into law after military recruits, who had spent their early years in the Great Depression, were identified as malnourished and unfit for military service. Generals pressured Congress to enact the National School Lunch Act in 1946 as a way to ensure well-fed children developed into effective troops.  

That was just one of the neat facts I learned at Our Food System: From Producer to Consumer: What You Need to Know – What You Can Do at SUNY Orange in Newburgh. The lecture’s presenter Kathy Lawrence, Co-founder and Senior Director of School Food Focus, talked about the state of U.S. food systems, how policy got us here, and how we can change. The presentation was a partnership with the Newburgh Urban Farming Fair, an annual agricultural event coming up later this month in Newburgh. The fair’s coordinator Virginia Kasinki, who is also the Outreach Manager for the city’s Downing Park Urban Farm, opened the talk with a summary of the fair’s beginnings, produce donation program and a short history of the park’s nearby farm whose seasonal pubic events start this season.  

For over 20 years Lawrence has worked in policy and projects in sustainable agriculture and food justice. She opened the talk with questions for the audience about their knowledge and connection to food, from backyard garden harvests to feeding systems in institutions. Her work at School Food Focus, a national collaborate that connects school districts and food businesses, helps schools develop an effective supply chain that results in healthy meals for students. The organization’s mission stems from the all-too-documented connection between student success and poor diet, disrupted eating patterns, and limited access to healthy food.

One key event brought about the idea of connecting school districts to strengthen their bargaining power. A district was receiving containers of yogurt from Dannon that were too large for their elementary students and food was going to waste. The school approached the manufacturer about reducing the package size, but didn’t get the response they hoped for. School districts have such a low price point per meal per student, making it essential that they be exact with their demands. School Food Focus connects districts and successes include creating an ingredient guide to enable schools to identify harmful ingredients and creates new lines of items. The organization was instrumental in pressuring large chicken producers like Tyson and Perdue to eliminate antibiotics. Chicken is number one protein served across the country.



Lawrence helped the audience divide the food system into three categories:
  • Conventional - Large scale, concentration of power profit, benefits flow to private sector, costs accrue to public sector, contributes to a loss of farmland and farmers and farming, negative environmental health effects, decreases in biodiversity
  • Alternative - Smaller scale, direct to consumer, farmer’s markets, contribute to gains in farmland and farming
  • Ag of the Middle - Midsized, have the capacity to serve volume to key institutions like schools. These don’t typically offer CSAs, farmers markets or pick your own. They might sell truckloads of apples wholesale
The current shape of our food system is not an accident and it’s not the natural path of progress. Lawrence talked about how policy got us here and how her organization is using it as a lever for change, with the goal to make the default choice be the easiest and healthiest choice. Lawrence talked about the roots, current state, and future of the Farm Bill which connects what’s on our plates to producers, and the Child Nutrition Act which serves 30.4 million children in our schools.

School Food Focus’ core beliefs are that we’re all connected and collaboration is essential. Lawrence stressed the importance of making your voice heard and how clear, informed, organized citizen action gets things done. She talked about the importance to letting lawmakers know when we want change. Even though issues needing change appear to be all over the news and social media, that doesn’t mean lawmakers are in the loop. Lawrence talked about not giving lawmakers the opportunity to say “we are not hearing from you people.” Even five or six phone calls about a particular issue can make them pay attention.   

What can we do? Everyone knows about “making your dollar count” but we shouldn’t stop there. Don’t know where to begin? Lawrence says that’s not uncommon. We can contribute to public comment periods, sign up for alerts that outline who, what, and where about your message. Making activism a group activity can be fun and empowering.

A citizen push for legislation, rules, and protections can snowball. Just Food’s network of fresh food training and resources for the New York City community began with just a handful of volunteers, and the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) developed as a response to public input.

Today we find plenty of bad news about government and food systems and policy, but there’s a lot of good happening. Change starts on a personal level and Lawrence encouraged the audience to find their passion. Kids can’t wait for healthy food.

School Food Focus: www.schoolfoodfocus.org